Editor’s note: Paul Kirch is CEO of Actus Sales Intelligence, a Fort Worth, Texas, business and sales consulting agency, and Actus-360, a technology services provider. He can be reached at 214-295-6111 or at pkirch@actussales.com.

So you think your company is really different. In an industry full of “me too” marketing, differentiation is a term that some firms shy away from entirely, while others try and find ways to tell a story. The strength of that message may vary but rarely do I feel that real thought was put into the statements I’m hearing. While that may not be a fair assessment, I do recognize the challenge in creating a message that displays real differentiation – something you can use to market and support your brand and sales efforts.

It’s okay to not have a truly different message. If you offer Web surveys, it’s hard to state that you are different from competitors who offer the same solution. You may have some unique things you do but you are probably not going to have a message that truly sets you apart from the rest. Even if you have such a message, it may not be enough to help you sell your service offering more effectively.

Is differentiation unnecessary? Not at all. In fact, I am a huge proponent of differentiating your brand. Without it, you are destined to be guilty of relying on “me too” messaging where your team is often stating, “Sure, we can do that, too.” That is not a position of strength. This doesn’t mean you won’t have an opportunity to win business but that you may struggle to be memorable during the bidding process – assuming you were provided the opportunity to participate in it.

Let’s look at one of the most popular ways research firms claim to be different: “Our team sells more consultatively than our competitors.” Let’s assume that is true. Does it really create differentiation? Yes, there are cases where this happens and the person selling the research is able to help steer their client down a better or different research path. But, it’s rarely a consulting opportunity and when it is, clients see it as you doing your job and your competitors are likely stating that their team has a more consultative sales approach. Hmmm … more “me too” messaging?

Let’s look at the elements of consulting and how it applies to your sales:

1. Providing advice. The real root of consulting is providing expert advice. While some salespeople are not experienced or skilled enough to provide expert direction, your clients should expect you to help guide them down the right path. If they aren’t working with a professional or team that can do that, they should find a new contact or supplier.

2. Asking better questions. It’s hard to be consultative if you aren’t inquisitive and asking questions to get to the real issues or opportunities. Does your team ask stronger questions than your competitors? How do you know? Are you working on that internally? Are you providing role-play training or is someone shadowing the sales team to hear what and how they are asking questions? Have you developed a set of questions and provided instruction on how to use them? Yes, asking good questions can be an element of consultation but in most cases it’s a way of securing a research project.

3. Trusted expert. I’m often surprised by how few sales professionals invest in their own personal brand. I’d argue that a part of consultation is being seen as an expert. Are your team members known as leaders or do they have credentials which your prospects can reference? Writing, blogging, public speaking and volunteering are just a few ways to get exposure as a credible expert.

If you are a salesperson, what are you doing to build your own brand? Or, if you are responsible for the sales direction, how are you empowering your staff to become trusted experts? Do your team members come across as industry thought leaders in a Google search?

I really believe it is necessary to develop a personal brand in order to become a successful sales professional. You can make sales without having celebrity status but once you have a strong reputation backed by credible assets – books, articles, speaking engagements, etc. – you are seen as a strong leader. Celebrity status isn’t limited to Hollywood. Even in the MR industry, there are people who are seen as influencers and leaders.

Differentiating your brand often relates back to your sales approach, project management process and follow-up procedures. It helps to be seen as different from the competition at a personal level. Brand differentiation is able to open doors where there is no prior relationship. While difficult to establish, it is powerful. Salespeople often don’t have control over messaging but they do have control over their personal brand. If your unique skills and background provide credibility to your professional capabilities, you might truly be seen as consultative because it is backed up by your respected personal brand.